Answering that of God in everyone.
The peace testimony.
The letter killeth but the Spirit giveth life. (1656 Epistle from the Elders at Balby)
These Quaker phrases are examples of language used so frequently that much of the original life and meaning of them - and the contexts from which they first emerged - have been lost.
I'm concerned that these phrases are not being given the weight they once were by Friends. As a result, we may end up describing some of our key principles with phrases and acronyms ("SPICE") that are barely connected to the undergirding structure of our faith and practice.
By way of metaphorI've been thinking that using and even acting from such automatic phrases, without considering the historical and theological roots from where they come, might be like living in a multi-story house and never checking the electrical, gas, heating, and water systems that keep the house running.
Or maybe it's more like caring for a tree, but only tending to the visible part--its bark, branches, leaves, blossoms, and fruit--but never watering the roots....
I'm not sure these metaphors hold, though. They are just beginnings of my wanting to understand what's going on with the contemporary use of our language of faith.
Language and registersAmong linguists, the phrases at the start of this post might be considered examples of "frozen register." I learned about registers and a language's level of formality when I was working as a professional sign language interpreter.
Often sign language interpreters cringe at interpreting the dreaded Star Spangled Banner, or worse: the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous. I'm not kidding.
Here's a worksheet for the Star Spangled Banner. How would you write these phrases in modern English? How would you explain what this song means to a foreigner or to your 4-year-old grandchild? Most of us don't think about what this anthem means anymore.
It's become rote.
And I would venture to say that some of our Quaker phrases have become rote. We say them and we are often out of touch with their connection to the Light Within and the Light's impact on us, personally and corporately.
Eventually, if we are not mindful, we will no longer speak from our own direct and personal experience of "answering that of God in everyone," for example. If we are not mindful, we will begin parroting the words that beloved Friends have used with us for years and years, because we seldom make our faith explicit to one another.
An experimentI wonder what might happen if we intentionally drop certain phrases from our Quaker vernacular, at least for a time, and do this as a discipline when interacting with new attenders and with seasoned Friends.
Phrases that I am currently avoiding are "Quakers have a (blank) Testimony that says..." and "Quakers have no creed."
What descriptions and new expressions might take the place of pat phrases? Might we be more inclined to offer an experience we had among Friends, from our spiritual journey, as a way to illustrate the point we wish to make? Might we take a bit more time, describing the connections between practice, belief, and tradition among Friends?
My personal hope is that the additional explanations will ground us more completely in our Quakerism and will help convey our faith as a complete gestalt, rather than as segments or individual threads of a tapestry.